The novel Stained by Abda Khan (New York: Harvard Square Editions, 2016) will be published in the USA in October 2016 and presents a new voice from an under-represented group of writers as well as a multi-dimensional story that is either too often ignored or even worse, sensationalised.
Many aspects of Asian society, and the life of different generations of immigrants are considered in Stained, along with the conflicts faced by the South Asian diaspora and between its youth and its elders. These pressures, expectations and norms are dealt with but not in an enforced way; they feel as though they are natural elements of the protagonist Selina’s story. It is refreshing to see that issues such as in-laws and arranged marriage are all dealt with in a compassionate and positive way. The arranged marriage, although undesired, is through choice and not depicted as a forced marriage, as is often the case in other novels. These aspects of Asian life are often demonised in existing literature.
Many issues around rape, victim and rapist are considered in this coming of age story, as Selina is forced to grow up in the cruellest of ways. There has been much in the media recently about sexual abusers and their victims, but it is rare to see or hear about Asian women in particular who have been raped. It would not be a surprise that this is often due to issues around the notion of Honour and the fear of being ostracised within the Asian community, and fears that nobody will marry or accept a girl or woman who is a rape victim. The novel considers not only how the immediate family is affected, but also what Selina feels forced to do in order to hide what has happened to her. Stained looks at how easily perpetrators get away with their crimes and continue to offend because nobody will stand up to them. As a result of silence, countless victims continue to suffer over many years because perpetrators remain unchallenged and continue to be considered respectable members of their community. Daughters and women who are so closely guarded suffer at the hands of those who are trusted from within the home or community, their voices silenced by Honour.
But sometimes, what seems to be the easy option is not the right option, and it is inevitable that lies will be exposed. Selina takes what she considers to be the best way forward, but when she is exposed, her world changes once again. But the novel is not one of hopelessness. It shows that no matter how dark times seem, you can work through them if you are brave enough to try, brave enough to stand up for yourself, brave enough to move forward despite the consequences.
Abda Khan has created a space for opening dialogue about issues affecting the Asian community such as rape, Honour and marriage in a way that moves away from the negative stereotyping that other writers have often portrayed. We need to be more nurturing, more honest with ourselves as a community and speak out about these important issues, because no matter how hard we try to ignore them or pretend they do not exist, those issues are out there and that is what prompted Abda Khan to write Selina’s story.
But these issues are not Asian-only issues. Rape and notions of Honour affect men and women of many faiths, colours and nationalities. Neither is blissful marriage guaranteed, nor is divorce the taboo it used to be. Everyone deserves to move forward in a positive way and they deserve to get help and support to do so. This will only happen through change, through exposing the wrongs rather than covering them up.
However, it is not so easy to try to expose not only wrongs but to create empathy for others of different cultures in an increasingly troubled world. The world of publishing is notorious for its lack of desire to take risks. It has been shown in reports such as ‘Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place’ by Danuta Keane that there is too much homogeneity in publishing in the UK, and that increasing numbers of readers will come from non-white groups. But even the pull of economics of attracting those readers by providing more relatable literature does not seem strong enough for many of the big publishers to take on writers from under-represented groups. This is echoed by Abda Khan’s experience. UK publishers have been hesitant to publish Stained, so she has had to search elsewhere for publication before Harvard Square Editions accepted her book.
This begs the question of how things are supposed to change when new voices are prevented from being published so they are having to seek publication in other countries and thereby finding it more difficult to publicise their work and even being denied UK launches of their books on home ground.
There has been too much dialogue on these issues. We have been talking about these issues for decades. Now is the time for action. Schemes like Megaphone and WriteNow, and smaller presses such Peepal Tree, Tilted Axis Press and Jacaranda Books Art Music are all excellent ways of creating change. But these can only deal with the tip of the proverbial iceberg if the bigger publishers are not willing to take more risks. While it is true that they are in the book trade to make money, they remain blinkered to potential and growing markets. As they continue to close their slush piles to new voices, their demand to be approached only by writers who are represented by literary agents slams the door even harder in the faces of emerging writers. Research such as Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors and Publishers in the UK Market Place by Danuta Kean and Mel Larsen, commissioned by Spread the Word, has shown that literary agents are less likely to take on writers from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) backgrounds, which in turn, prevents them from approaching some of the biggest publishing houses.
Bear this in mind, then, when considering that Abda Khan is still trying to make her voice heard in the UK and is still searching for a literary agent who will help to open a few of those doors that are bolted shut against her and other BAME writers who are shouting into the void.